Charles Dickens’ classic holiday story gets the grim, Peaky Blinders treatment.
Content warning: This review discusses the show’s depiction of (implied) sexual abuse.
Forgiveness for a cliche: This ain’t your mama’s A Christmas Carol. No, really. Don’t let your mom watch this version of A Christmas Carol.
Conceived and written by Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, Taboo, and See, A Christmas Carol is a bleak adaptation of the classic novella by Charles Dickens. Airing as a three-night miniseries in the UK and as a 3-hour movie on FX in the States, the trailer for this version promised a darker, spookier version of the story most folks in the audience know by heart. Well, it’s darker all right.
The story beats are the same as they ever were: Scrooge loves money and hates his fellow man, he is visited by the tormented ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley, who warns Scrooge that he’ll be visited by three additional spirits that night in hopes that he’ll repent his wicked ways. The Ghosts (Christmas Past, Present, and Future) appear, Scrooge learns his lesson, he buys Tiny Tim a Christmas goose, the end. Some adaptations add more frills than others, some have songs, some have Muppets. This version, proudly showing every bit of its Taboo and Peaky Blinders heritage, adds brutal flashbacks of the pain and suffering Scrooge and Marley’s avarice wreaked upon the people who worked for them, lengthy stretches in Purgatory, and Scrooge saying the f-word.
Jacob Marley (Stephen Graham) awakens in Purgatory a year after his death, where he is fitted with chains and meets the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andy Serkis, giving his all and feasting on every shadowy piece of scenery), who bids Marley go to his former partner Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce) and warn Scrooge that he had better listen to the incoming spirits, else he too get some chains. We stop back in with Marley in Purgatory every so often, waiting to hear how the spirits have done. It’s seldom good news.
The bulk of the story is given to Christmas Past, who takes on various forms from Scrooge’s memories as they travel throughout various important Christmases of his life. First off, Scrooge’s abusive father, who reduces the adult Scrooge to tears as he forces him to relive a childhood Christmas where his father killed his pet mouse. Past then assumes the form of the storybook character Ali Baba, in whose stories young Scrooge sought refuge at school, where he was left alone over numerous Christmas breaks with a headmaster who sexually abused him.
These memories are followed by glimpses at bad business practices, a mine collapse, and an act of sheer cruelty perpetuated simply to prove that Scrooge could. Even Past’s glimpses at some positive memory are appropriately stark: when we see Scrooge encounter a memory of his long lost love Belle, it’s with a vision of the life and children that they could have had, children whom Past helpfully reminds him were never born.
Even Past’s glimpses at some positive memory are appropriately stark.
Christmas Present appears as Scrooge’s sister Lottie (Charlotte Riley) and shows him how regular, non-monster people like Bob and Mary Cratchit (Joe Alwyn and Vinette Robinson) celebrate Christmas and Christmas Future (Jason Flemyng) is suitably terrifying, but the ending is a rushed affair and neither of these spirits or their visions really get enough to do before Scrooge learns to say “Merry Christmas” and the movie is over.
The time spent with Christmas Past has shown Scrooge to have committed sins that no amount of Christmas spirit can overcome, and his promise to do better in the future is a weak handwave towards those he has wronged. Usually, Scrooge ends his story at his nephew Fred’s house, finally embracing the holiday with the family he has spurned, but no one is inviting this Scrooge anywhere, Christmas cheer or no.
The costumes and sets are beautiful, and the performances are strong, particularly Pearce and Serkis, who play the scenes between Scrooge and Past as a clash of wills for the ages. But it isn’t enough to save this year’s version of this story.
A Christmas Carol airs on FX, Thursday December 19th at 7:30 pm ET.